Sunday, August 24, 2014

Take a Deep Breath... It's My 'Doctor Who' Premiere Review

When you’re an English major in college and take writing workshops, your professors will utter words to you that you will never forget. They’ll become a cliché, honestly, and you’ll find yourself repeating them for years to come in social and academic situations. Sometimes these words will weave themselves into your high school career, long before you’ve even approached college life. They are the following mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” They’re simple words with a profound meaning within the context of writing. When you’re in high school, they’re used to prevent over-explanation. In college, they’re used to prevent both over-explanation and heavy-handed writing. You don’t need to tell an audience that characters are in love – you can SHOW it. You don’t need to tell an audience that a character has matured – you can SHOW it. You don’t need to tell us, as audience members, that a character is worthy of affection – you can SHOW it by how you write that particular character. Let’s briefly look at Community as an always apt example: Dan Harmon did not need to tell us that Jeff Winger has grown. Characters occasionally make reference to the fact that he has changed but the primary vehicle for that character growth has been for Dan Harmon and the other writers to SHOW us how much Jeff has grown through his actions and his words. That is what writing – good writing – is: “show, don’t tell.”

No one likes to be berated and no one likes to be talked down to. Furthermore, I know of very few people who like being told how to feel about a character or characters within the context of anything, be it literature, plays, or television. It is our natural human tendency to bristle at the command; it is our tendency to rebel. Why not, instead, let us fall in or out love with characters without any demand to feel a certain way by the writer? Wouldn’t that make more sense? Wouldn’t it lend your audience to a different sort of intimacy with those aforementioned characters? (The answer in my opinion is unashamedly “YES!”)

I’m going to preface this post by saying this: I had zero problems in “Deep Breath” with Peter Capaldi or Jenna Coleman. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m absolutely smitten with Clara Oswald as a character and her status as “the impossible girl.” She is immensely talented and can elevate any scene she is in. Peter Capaldi’s debut proved that he’s a force to be reckoned with in Doctor Who as our beloved Time Lord. He is, too, able to chew any scene he is in no matter how absurd, silly, serious, or emotional the moment. He proved that in “Deep Breath.” And since I presume you all are waiting for a “but…”, here it is: the writing did not do these characters justice at all. It was erratic and bizarre at points. At best, it was a romp into an adventure with a semi-tied bow ending; at worst, it was a two-hour lecture from Steven Moffat about all of the reasons we need to accept Peter Capaldi’s age and status as The Doctor.

So, let’s explore some elements of “Deep Breath” that I think worked and a lot that I think did not. My best friend and I explored these themes and problematic issues when we spent an hour after the episode discussing them last night, so I have a LOT of feelings. And perhaps you do too.

Issue #1: The character regression of Clara.

My best friend and I stumbled upon a near-unique problem in our discussion of the Doctor Who premiere last night, especially when we began to discuss our qualms with the writing of Clara in the episode: Clara and Rose are the only full-time (I’m not counting Jack or River) new Who companions who have been around to witness the regeneration of their beloved Doctor. Martha met Ten and only Ten, as did Donna. When Amy and Rory traveled, they only saw Eleven’s face. Rose watched Nine turn into Ten and Clara watched Eleven turn into Twelve. So then, this obviously begs the question from me as a writer and a viewer of the series: “How did each woman handle the regeneration? What does it say about them as characters?” In “The Christmas Invasion,” Rose Tyler experiences fear and confusion in sadness in the wake of Nine’s regeneration. “I thought I knew him. I thought me and him were… And then he goes and does this,” she tells Jackie. It is understandable for Rose to be confused, but throughout the remainder of the episode, the inner anguish that Rose Tyler faces in the wake of Nine’s regeneration is not that the man she traveled with changed but that he was hurting and failing and she NEEDED him; she was scared and sobbed to Jackie because of the fact that Nine LEFT her and left her alone when she needed him. The beauty of Nine’s regeneration into Ten was that it taught Rose Tyler to trust The Doctor, no matter what his face was, but that she could trust HERSELF, too. Anyone remember what happened when Rose Tyler was called upon by the Sycorax to speak for the entire planet? She stepped up and said: “Someone’s gotta be The Doctor.”

(I’ll hold for applause because even in “The Christmas Invasion,” she was Rose Tyler: Defender of the Earth.)

Rose didn’t care that Nine changed faces as much as she cared about him changing personalities – changing fundamentals. The fundamental truth that she always believed was that The Doctor would save her; that he would save everyone who needed it. And she doubted and broke down in the regeneration episode when she thought he had changed that fundamental truth about himself along with his hair and face. The problem with “Deep Breath” was this: Clara Oswald has always been presented to us – in every form in every time period in every galaxy – as a woman who is resilient and determined and brave. But the regeneration episode regressed her to a girl who cared that her pretty, young Doctor turned into a strange, older, Scottish man. “Deep Breath” literally told us that the only reason Clara loved The Doctor and traveled with him – the only reason she TRUSTED HIM – was because he was young and cute.

Now, the issue I took with this portrayal of Clara was two-fold: 1) As I stated above, we’ve never seen Clara portrayed as a superficial, immature, whiny, childish character. This is a woman who CLUNG TO THE OUTSIDE OF A TARDIS AND REFUSED TO LET GO. That was one of the best things we have seen a companion do to prove resilience. In “Deep Breath,” for the sake of projection on Moffat’s part, she spent the majority of the episode lamenting Twelve’s new face. I understand and accept the fact that Clara needed to struggle with the change from Eleven to Twelve. She was deeply connected to Eleven and often referred to him as “my Doctor” (a meta nod if I’ve ever heard one). As I noted above in the case of Rose Tyler, I accept the fact that Rose and Clara would need to struggle with accepting a new face of “their” Doctor. That’s fine. But – and here is a BIG but – Nine’s regeneration into Ten allowed Rose Tyler to grow and become bolder and braver; she had to doubt The Doctor before she could completely embrace him. And when she did, it was immediate and wholehearted (“No arguments from me!”) not because she liked his new face but because she was reminded it was the same man.

The second problem in regards to Clara was this: 2) Moffat used Clara to project how he believed fangirls (and boys) would feel about Capaldi’s age. The entirety of “Deep Breath” was a barrage of metaphors regarding Capaldi’s new-old face. And I took issue with the fact that Moffat used an episode not to convince us that Capaldi was amazing by just letting him be amazing, but by telling us – repeatedly – that Matt Smith was young and Peter Capaldi is older. By having Clara be this mouthpiece, we didn’t just lose some appreciation for Capaldi, but we were treated to a regression of character from Clara Oswald. Furthermore, we were treated to some character traits throughout the episode that I don’t believe ever truly existed.

In a podcast, I once talked about the difference between assassinating a character and making a character unlikable. My cited definition hinged on inherent traits and personalities of a constructed character, specifically by asking the question: “Is this a trait that a character already possesses OR is a writer attempting to give a character a certain trait or personality that they don’t possess for the sake of plot or conflict?” The premiere told us that Clara Oswald was a control freak who was obsessed with solving games and puzzles and was so superficial that she could not accept an aged Doctor over her beloved “young” one. I have to wonder… is that CLARA we are supposed to be seeing or a mirror that Moffat is holding up to the fandom whose few but loud fangirls and boys obsessed with shipping object to Capaldi’s age? Because when you truly think about it, even though they were copies of herself and not the real, true Clara Oswald, bits and pieces of Clara have been with the other Doctors – the classic ones who were older and who had lines on their faces. So it would have been amazing to see some part of Clara – however small – be triggered by those faint non-memories and see her Doctor there within Twelve’s face.

As it was, however, Clara was only allowed to “grow” when she was berated by Madame Vastra (the veil metaphor was good… until we followed it up with two more instances of mirror metaphors and about a half hour’s worth of dialogue about how Capaldi is old) and reassured by “her” Doctor over the phone. (I’ll get to that momentarily, I promise.) Rose Tyler was assured by seeing The Doctor rescue her and the world: it was in that moment that she was reminded of who he is. There’s a moment where Twelve rescues Clara – it’s a beautiful moment, honestly and truly – and she holds out her hand, closes her eyes, and believes that The Doctor will save her if he is still The Doctor. AND HE DOES.

The problem is that she STILL spends the rest of the episode doubting him. And as someone who loves and treasures Clara Oswald, I took issue with the fact that she was being portrayed as so shallow when we have literally never seen her act this way before. 

Issue #2: The “tell” rather than “show” of Peter Capaldi.

I said it at the beginning of this post, but it bears repeating in case I get berated on Twitter for being a hater of Twelve or something: I really liked Capaldi. The only problem I had with him as an actor was superficial and attributed more to television and production quality than anything (his accent is thick and my television wasn’t extremely loud so I often missed what he was saying – the opening scene with the dinosaur was the worst). I liked him. I think he will be super interesting because unlike the other Doctors who ended their first episodes knowing who they were (Ten realizing he was a man who didn’t give second chances; Eleven confronting the Atraxi), Twelve still isn’t sure WHO he is. And that’s cool because it’ll give us the season to explore what kind of Doctor he is, even if it was a bit frustrating to not know much about this brand new Doctor in his introduction episode.

No, the problem I had was not with Capaldi but with Moffat overshadowing him and his abilities with heavy-handed writing. Let’s be honest for a moment: it was extremely evident that Moffat went to great lengths – multiple times – in “Deep Breath” to address Capaldi’s age. And, as I noted with Clara, he went to great lengths and stretched his beautiful character super thin with the sole intent of using her as a scapegoat for the fandom who might take issue with that age. Everyone saw that in the episode, quite clearly. Moffat used Madame Vastra’s veil as a metaphor to teach Clara about deceiving people for the sake of appearances; we saw Twelve encounter mirrors THREE TIMES in the episode and discuss his bewilderment over his face and confusion: why THAT face? (It’s also a meta nod to Capaldi being in “The Fires of Pompeii” I’m sure.) As an aside, the whole mirror metaphor was… interesting. It was the notion that Moffat presented of Twelve being uncertain of why he regenerated into that particular face and whether or not he’s just become a patchwork quilt of personalities over the regenerations rather than a whole, functioning Time Lord. It begs the question, though: “If Twelve thinks that once you change too much, there’s nothing left of who you were… who IS Twelve?” Thematically, this could have been an interesting topic to explore but the execution of it was far too sloppy and hurried. We had an entire episode of being told to love and accept this Doctor’s new face without showing us WHY – the episode dragged from hurried half-executed concept to hurried half-executed concept, in my opinion.

And by the way, you don’t need to repeatedly tell me that I need to accept Capaldi as The Doctor, Steven Moffat. I’m watching Doctor Who, after all: I know how this works. I’ve already been around for three regenerations so there is no need to base an episode around repeated mentions of Twelve’s aged face. I GET IT. I AM OKAY WITH IT. LET US MOVE ON AND WATCH HIM DO AMAZING THINGS. But the problem is that we could not move on, really. The problem is that Moffat utilized Clara as a scapegoat instead of a character in “Deep Breath.” And scapegoats need to learn lessons the long way ‘round. So, instead of allowing us to embrace Capaldi and his version of The Doctor for nearly two hours, we were coerced into a journey through superficial-dom in the form of Clara Oswald and then, just when I thought Clara was going to be okay with Twelve… she wasn’t. That moment in the TARDIS where she tells him that she doesn’t know who he is anymore (even though he’s repeatedly proven in the episode that he will save her and the planet), Capaldi does SUCH stellar work of portraying the total heartbreak that Twelve feels. He may not know exactly who he is yet as The Doctor, but the one thing he believed to be true – that he learned to be true – was that Clara was his constant.

And then… something else happened that I am still quite on the fence about. Eleven called from Trenzalore (wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff right there) and told her that his new self NEEDED her and that she had to be there for him. He told her he missed her but that he was still there, a few feet away, and to not be afraid of that. I am still on the fence about this moment because of the fact that it – again – demonstrated to us that Moffat didn’t believe we could (or some part of his audience could) accept Capaldi as The Doctor and that we would need to have Matt Smith formally passing on the torch within the context of an episode in order for Clara and us to accept him. That’s problematic to me because it basically undercuts Capaldi as a performer.

Think about it: that moment told us that we could – or that Clara could – never accept Twelve until we – and she – were explicitly told to accept him by Eleven. The weird thing is that… we don’t NEED to be told to accept someone; we accept them on their own merit. Davies didn’t tell us to accept Tennant as The Doctor. There was no hologram of Nine telling Rose that it was okay, that she should trust and care for him. No, we accepted him (or at least I did) in the moment that he quoted The Lion King. It was like a switch was flipped and we said: “Ah, yes. This is him. This is The Doctor – MY Doctor.” (Harriet Jones, Prime Minister makes reference to “my Doctor” in “The Christmas Invasion” and it was a brilliant moment that Davies used to succinctly address and shut down that notion of The Doctor somehow being confined to ONE person/actor.) In “The Eleventh Hour,” the moment I fell in love with Matt Smith was the moment “I Am the Doctor” began to swell and he stepped through those ten holograms with his new face. Did we need to be told that Matt Smith was the eleventh incarnation? Did we need to be told that he was the same Doctor with a different face?

NO, BECAUSE THE MANTRA IS “SHOW, DON’T TELL.” Moffat’s biggest problem in “Deep Breath” was letting the meta commentary and aged face be the star of the episode rather than Capaldi himself. And though Capaldi put up a brilliant and valiant effort, I still feel like he was lost in that “telling” rather than “showing.” Instead of doing what Moffat has done in the past (introducing Clara, for instance, and letting the audience fall in love with her organically in “Asylum of the Daleks” before introducing her as a companion without forcing us to accept her in the wake of the departure of the Ponds by rattling off a laundry list of reasons why we should), he failed to endear me to Twelve through his words in the episode; I was endeared to Capaldi because of CAPALDI, not because Moffat told me – repeatedly – I had to accept him.

Issue #3: The lack of coherent plot/using beloved supporting characters to prop up story.

There was literally a dinosaur for the sole purpose of having a dinosaur in “Deep Breath.” It was there and then it wasn’t and that was it. That was it. 

When Simi and I discussed the episode afterward, she turned to me and blatantly asked: “Okay, can I ask you something? Did you even CARE about what happened when Twelve and that cyborg bad guy were fighting over London?” While I said that it had intrigued me because I wanted to know if Twelve was capable of killing someone (having asked her: “When is the last time The Doctor killed someone in cold blood?”), I admitted to being relatively uninvested in the plot that merely seemed to serve to prop up the theme of Twelve being uncertain of who he is as The Doctor. (As an aside, is it weird to anyone else that Twelve couldn’t remember who anyone was and got angry at them all and then suddenly at the end of the episode remembered everything again? I know in “The Christmas Invasion,” Ten was in a sort of stupor post-regeneration but he still maintained memories of Rose, Mickey, Jackie, and Harriet Jones. It was a bit baffling to see Twelve have no memories of Clara when it suited the plot at the beginning of the episode and ALL of them at the end when it was necessary.)

Speaking of props, Madame Vastra, Jenny (BLESS HER LIGHT), and Strax were back this episode. And much like River Song, they exist in the Moffat universe to prop up a story whenever they are necessary. The point of them being there was to provide comfort for the viewers who longed for something familiar. I really and truly wish that we hadn’t had Madame Vastra and Jenny’s relationship utilized as a vehicle for Moffat’s heavy-handed acceptance of Twelve. I love the comedic relief that Strax brings with every episode and I appreciated Jenny being more vocal and Madame Vastra being harsh but direct to Clara, but… it feels like a rather tried and true formula of Moffat’s. They are his net and his fallback forever and I rather feel like they deserve more than that by now, don’t you?

Here’s what I loved and needed more of: the Twelve/Clara restaurant scene.

In case you think that I believe Moffat did everything wrong in the season premiere, let me present you with my favorite scene in the episode and the scene that felt most like home: the restaurant banter scene. When Simi and I discussed Capaldi and Coleman, I noted that Matt Smith and Karen Gillan had such an intimate and refined dynamic on and off set that it translated to screen very well. Similarly, Matt and Jenna had a great on-screen rapport. They matched wits as Eleven and Clara. She challenged him, occasionally insulted him, and loved and respected him. Eleven loved Clara. Whether it was romantic or platonic is totally up to your interpretation but there is no doubt in my mind that he revered and respected her (hello, remember that her tears were what caused Eleven to pause and not eliminate all of the Time Lords).

But The Doctor has always had fun with his companions, always butted heads with them and always teased them. The scene between Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman was totally and absolutely perfect. This was the first time in the episode that I saw real and layered chemistry between not just the actors, but the CHARACTERS. There was some tension but it was eased out of the scene as both Twelve and Clara began to do what they do best: solve puzzles and mysteries. TOGETHER. It was a great moment because it reminded us that these two banter and occasionally fight and they understand each other, but they also are BRILLIANT both separately and together. I wish that more of the episode had focused on Clara bantering with Twelve rather than being resentful of him because this scene, while lovely, felt out of place in an episode where Clara could barely force herself to look Twelve in the eye.

So there you have it, my friends. It’s completely fine if you loved “Deep Breath.” I did not write this post in order to sway your opinion toward mine. I wrote this because I had a lot of feelings about the writing of the episode as contrasted by the acting. I feel like Moffat’s episode and dialogue grossly under-served Capaldi and Coleman and that the introduction of Twelve could have been so much better than it was. 

But I’m cautiously optimistic that now that we have gotten that giant elephant in the room out of the way – the one labeled “Capaldi’s age” – we can move forward and allow Twelve and Clara’s unique chemistry and Capaldi and Coleman’s impressive skills as actors shine through every episode in season eight of Doctor Who.


  1. Very nice review! Not really knowing about Clara nor Matt Smith's years, I gathered she was a smart, reliable character by Jenna's performance but definitely not through Moffat's writing. He spent way too much time stepping outside of the writer's room and judging the viewers about Capaldi's age. Personally it didn't bother me a bit; I was intrigued by what his personality was going to be like. The premiere was entertaining but it reminded me too much of when actors try to tell us they're giving a good performance instead of just being in character. The episode would've gone a lot smoother if we weren't being repetitively told to trust Capaldi, and had just watched him regain Clara's trust.

    1. Thanks so much Katy! Yeah, the inherent problem was not with the acting by Capaldi but by the writing of him and - more specifically - his age. I think I know what Moffat was aiming for, but it just didn't work. It made Clara appear like a petty schoolgirl and didn't give us anything more about Twelve to really understand/care about. We literally knew nothing more about him at the end of the episode than we did at the beginning and I think that's a problem when you're introducing a new Doctor.

      The episode would've gone a lot smoother if we weren't being repetitively told to trust Capaldi, and had just watched him regain Clara's trust.